Introduction and release are a process which takes time; it must be done systematically, scientist Vibhu Prakash told DTE
Photo: Vikas Choudhary / CSE
Vultures provide important ecosystem services by feeding on carcasses and keeping the environment clean and disease-free.
India’s vulture populations crashed in the 1990s due to the use of diclofenac, a pain reliever administered to cattle. Vultures feeding on cattle carcasses used to die extremely painful deaths as the drug entered their system.
Read Down To Earth’s stories on vulture conservation in India
In 2004, it was found that diclofenac was the cause of vulture deaths and that 97 per cent of the population had been lost till then. The main species affected were oriental white-backed vultures, long-billed vultures and slender-billed vultures.
That same year, the Indian government along with other agencies came up with a Vulture Recovery Plan which recommended banning the veterinary use of diclofenac, finding its substitute and set up conservation breeding centres for vultures.
A primary reason behind forming such a plan was that vultures are slow breeders that live long. If the annual mortality rate increases to more than five per cent, the spectre of extinction looms large.
The Vulture Recovery Plan was incorporated into the Action Plan for Vulture Conservation 2006. The use of diclofenac as a veterinary drug was banned in 2006 and gazetted in 2008. It was also recommended in the same notification that another drug, meloxicam should be used.
The Centre also restricted the vial size of diclofenac for human use to just three millilitres after it was found that people were using diclofenac meant for humans in cattle. The use of diclofenac as a veterinary drug has gone down substantially in these 30 years. But there still are problems.
On the occasion of International Vulture Awareness Day, Down To Earth caught up with Vibhu Prakash of the Bombay Natural History Society, who has played a pivotal role in the recovery of Indian vultures over these three decades. We asked him about the current situation. Edited excerpts:
Rajat Ghai: It is now over 30 years since the diclofenac debacle. What is the current estimate of vulture numbers in India?
Vibhu Prakash: We have finished a survey for population estimation of vultures recently. We are analysing the data. The results will be published in a couple of months.
In the last few surveys that we have done, we have an estimate of over 6,000 Oriental White-Backed Vultures, about 11,000 Long-Billed Vultures and 1,000 Slender-Billed Vultures. It appears that the numbers are increasing, albeit slowly.
RG: What is the plan for the vultures bred at eight different centres across India?
Vibhu Prakash: There are 800-odd vultures at eight centres established by the Government of India in collaboration with the BNHS. These centres are located in Pinjore (Haryana), Rani (Assam), Rajabhatkhawa (West Bengal), Hyderabad (Telangana), Bhopal (Madhya Pradesh), Junagadh (Gujarat), Ranchi (Jharkhand) and Bhubaneswar (Odisha).
The ultimate objective to release all of them back to the wild. But introduction and release are a process which takes time. We have released some 27 birds. But we are still monitoring them with tracking devices and provision food to them if that is scarce.
Gradually, they get accustomed to the wilderness. Once you release the birds, they have to be monitored for 2-3 years. We usually release birds in the wild that are at least two years old as a year-old bird is naïve.
We try to release a small number of birds. When they start nesting, their offspring will be totally wild.
We have found that drugs such as nimesulide, aceclofenac and ketoprofen, which were meant to be alternatives to diclofenac, can also cause problems to the birds. We have requested the Government of India to ban the veterinary use of these drugs.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are metabolised in the liver and excreted from the kidneys. But when we do carcass sampling, we discover traces of nimesulide in very few animals.
The traces are found only at the site of the injection. So maybe, nimesulide is not as much of a problem as diclofenac was. But aceclofenac should be banned before more releases can be done.
We are testing the waters with these releases. Once we know there is no mortality for two years or so, we will be releasing more.
We will do it with tracking devices and ideally in areas where people or researchers are familiar with the terrain and the birds can be monitored.
RG: What is the response of the government so far and what does it have in mind vis-à-vis these captive vultures?
VP: The government has been very supportive so far. It has released the Action Plan for Vulture Conservation 2020-2025, which says all the right things. It talks about the drug problem for vultures, how any drug found to be toxic for the birds is to be removed from the system. It has also talked about how the vultures bred at the centres should be released in a safe environment.
But there has been a public interest litigation filed in the Delhi High Court earlier this year about why the Centre has not banned nimesulide, aceclofenac and ketoprofen even though it had promised to do so. That matter is sub judice.
The Centre has also recently formed a committee made up of members from the BNHS and Indian Veterinary Research Institute to formulate a release policy for vultures being bred at the centres.
Let us see what happens. But whatever is done must be done systematically. There must be resources to monitor the released vultures for at least 3-4 years.
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